Professor Ruth Wisse, the political commentator known for her fierce, conservative views, does not understand North American Jews.
Her tirades are powerful, partly right, and brilliantly written. But when it comes to the specifics of the Jewish situation, she simply does not comprehend the big picture. And her mistakes on the relationship of North American Jews to Israel are especially troubling.
Wisse has recently published a memoir entitled "Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation." The book has generated rave notices from the conservative segments of the Jewish press.
Commentary devotes five full pages to its review, calling the memoir "a beautiful and necessary book." The Tikvah Fund, which promotes a politically conservative approach to Jewish tradition, is offering an online course devoted entirely to Dr. Wisse’s volume, featuring various conservative luminaries as teachers and presenters.
To a liberal like me, what Wisse writes is mostly infuriating. Nonetheless, her book is fascinating, and some segments are truly wonderful.
The most memorable parts are her stories of growing up in Montreal’s Jewish community, after her family fled Romania in 1940 just prior to the Soviet Union’s invasion. Her parents had possessed the courage to leave everything behind and flee Eastern Europe before it descended into chaos and mass murder, and then responded to the devastating loss of their European family with activism rather than bitterness or despair.
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The family was secular but observed some holidays and traditions. Her father provided help to surviving relatives, other Jewish immigrants, and a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish causes, while her mother had a passion for Yiddish culture, which she supported and encouraged in a multiplicity of ways.
For those of us who love Yiddish, the tales of the Yiddish poets and novelists who gathered in Wisse’s home, at her mother’s invitation, are enthralling. Yiddish today lives on mostly in the realm of the ultra-Orthodox, but Wisse’s mother believed in Yiddish as a sacred language and as a vehicle of Jewishness and Jewish survival for all Jews.
The dreams of the Yiddishists were certain to be shattered, of course; Yiddish will never again be a language of the Jewish masses. But her mother instilled in her daughter Ruth a profound devotion to Yiddish language and literature. And both Dr. Wisse and her younger brother went on to become professors, researchers, and champions of the Yiddish literary canon, playing a critical role in preserving Yiddish among an academic elite.
Wisse’s accomplishments in this regard are prodigious, and she offers a breathtaking account of her immersion in Montreal’s Yiddish enclave and of her embrace of Yiddish as both an academic discipline and a central pillar of her Jewish worldview.
But her polemics are a different matter. More an intellectual autobiography than a personal memoir, her book is primarily a polemical work, tracing the evolution of Wisse’s thinking and ideas. Much of it covers familiar territory, well-known to those who have read Wisse’s writings over the last four decades.
And as much as I admire the way that she combines a fearless combativeness with a modest, graceful writing style, a lot of her ideas range from the grating to the truly outrageous.
Although she taught at McGill and Harvard, a woman in male-dominated departments, she finds no value in feminism, of either the general or Jewish variety. In her eyes, the task of the male in the human species is protection of the female.
She is especially worried about feminist ideology in the Jewish world, since among Jews historical factors have created a "unique vulnerability of maleness." Jewish women, in her view, "are so much better off than their menfolk," and therefore male "confederacies" of various sorts, including venues of study and prayer, are best preserved so as not to weaken male status and men’s egos.
She opposes the rabbinic ordination of women, accepting the argument that such a step will undermine Jewish observance and is not justified in the absence of a cohort of outstanding women Talmudists.
It is hard to know what to make of this mishmash. While Wisse is open to "evolutionary developments" in the relations between the sexes, her dismissal of virtually all the concerns of modern feminism is stunning, not to mention deeply elitist.
Dr. Wisse grew up in a stable and comfortable home with loving parents and refers to the fact that she was among those women "whose husbands cherished and supported us." But what about women who grew up in more difficult circumstances and were not cherished and supported by their partners? Might many of them not require the financial, cultural, and legal support that, as result of feminist activism, our society has begun to provide?
And in the Jewish world, has the emergence of a growing number of expert female Talmudists changed her mind about the ordination of women? And is the fragility of the religious Jewish male, which is the central premise of her opposition to Jewish feminism, a reality and in any sense verifiable?
On the issue of gay rights, Wisse is, at best, equivocal. On the one hand, she favors decriminalization of homosexuality. On the other hand, she laments the fact that in Canada, "young men and women who a generation earlier would have entered into heterosexual marriages now declared themselves gay and began living their lives accordingly." Such conduct, she writes, is an attack on the primacy and the nature of the family.
Again, these views strike me as jarring and cruel. Why assume that LGBTQ individuals are incapable of forming stable families? Why imply that they declare themselves gay, not as a reflection of who they are but as a matter of casual preference or political solidarity? And why suggest that in the absence of recent legislation, it would somehow be better, for them or anyone else, if people who are not heterosexuals were to find themselves in a heterosexual marriage?
Wisse writes a great deal about her years at Harvard and her views on how the university deals with affirmative action (or, as she calls it, "group preferences") and free speech. While I find her opinions on affirmative action extreme, I agree with much that she has to say about free speech, and the dire implications of inhibiting speech on campus. The issues are complicated, of course, but as noted, she has covered these topics at length elsewhere.
The heart of the book, however, is her discussion of Israel, and the relationship between Israel and North American Jews. And while she has discussed these matters previously as well, she makes her case here with particular passion and fervor.
Dr. Wisse sees Israel as a miracle, and I agree. Following the decimation of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, and the heroic struggle in its aftermath to create a Jewish state, she believes that Jews have a "non-dischargeable debt" to Israel, and I agree. She believes that Israel is under attack in North American universities, and I agree. She is appalled by the demonization of the only Jewish state, and I agree. She writes that protecting Israel from its enemies is a political imperative, a prime test – for her, the prime test – of good versus evil, and here too I agree.
And Wisse is scathingly critical of those Jews who fail this test. Again and again, she expresses her contempt for Jews who respond to anti-Israel attacks and antisemitism by turning against their fellow Jews, disguising their cowardice by finding fault in their own people rather than confronting their enemies.
These are the Jews who "prided themselves on their goodness, and therefore had to hold other Jews responsible for the enmity that Jews aroused…the tolerant liberals whose generosity extends to the perpetrators." No matter that Israel was innocent of what it was accused of. For these Jews, the real agenda was to dodge anti-Jewish venom while presenting themselves in the best possible light.
Do such Jews – cowardly and morally defective – exist? Of course.
But Wisse’s problem is that when she looks at the Jewish world, she can see two, and only two, camps: Responsible Jews who support Israel unquestioningly, and irresponsible Jews who attack Israel out of fear for their own status and well-being.
Yet this position, of course, is absurd. She makes no allowance for a third category of Jews: Proud, pro-Israel Jews, who love the Jewish state and identify with its destiny but have serious questions about the values and policies of Israel’s government.
Wisse should heed Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and is the son of the late Rabbi David Hartman, who was Wisse’s teacher in Montreal. Hartman refers to these Jews in the third category as the "troubled committed."
As Hartman correctly notes, there are many Jews like this in North America, and quite a few in Israel. They are the ones who are unconditionally committed to Israel’s survival while wanting to build an Israel that reflects the highest Jewish and democratic values of Zionism.
They are the Jews who care about Israel’s security, recognize the aggression it faces, struggle against its demonization, and refuse to ignore Palestinian rejectionism.
But they also have questions that they urgently want Israel’s government to answer.
Why will no one stop the wave of beatings, arson, vandalism, and rock-throwing that has been directed at Palestinian civilians in the West Bank for decades? Why are Israel’s intelligence services, among the best in the world, unable to arrest and jail vicious Jewish hooligans who are wreaking havoc on innocent Arabs?
Why does state-sponsored settlement expansion continue year after year? Why do "illegal outposts" continue to grow in number when they violate not only international law but Israel’s own legal norms?
It may be true that, for now, the occupation must continue. But even if that is so, Rabbi Hartman asserts, Israel’s behavior must radically change. More than half a century after the Six Day War, the occupation has become semi-permanent, leaving a lingering moral stench that even the most devoted Zionists cannot ignore. And the “troubled committed,” whose support for the right of a Jewish state in the land of Israel has never wavered, desperately hope that Israel will do better.
What does Ruth Wisse have to say about such matters? Not a word. Because she does not recognize the problem.
For Wisse, the "troubled committed," who combine commitment with criticism, would surely be seen as cowards and traitors. Worry less about "self-improvement," she says to the critics, and more about "self-protection."
The problem with this argument, however, is that at a certain point it simply makes no sense and turns reality on its head. Israel is a strong and tough regional power, entirely capable of taking care of itself.
And the "troubled committed" are not naïve idealists, indifferent to security matters. They are activist, pro-Israel Jews, who believe in Zionism and the liberal values to which Wisse supposedly subscribes.
As such, they are sick of settler extremists cutting down and burning olive trees, torching mosques, and burning cars. They support additional settlement but want it to be in the Negev and the Galilee and not in the outer reaches of the West Bank. They believe that Israel’s security needs are best served by physically separating Israelis and Palestinians in the territories and searching out every possible opportunity for peace.
Wisse does not have to believe any of this, but she needs to recognize that those who speak this language are morally serious. She needs to appreciate that many pro-Israel Jews worry both about their own decency and about the physical safety of Jews and Israel, and it is proper, and essential, for them to do so.
Wisse’s book talks a great deal about truth.
"A teacher’s duty," she writes, "an intellectual’s duty, (is) to restore the reputation of plain Truth, if not the thing itself." Exactly so.
And the plain Truth is that Israel must be a strong, safe, homeland for the Jewish people, and that for Jews, commitment to Israel is non-negotiable.
But the plain Truth also is that Israel’s leaders have made their share of errors, some of them egregious, and their mistakes must be acknowledged, debated, and critiqued. The plain Truth is that Israel must not give up on the Jewish people, and this requires hearing their critical voices, even if ultimately Israel pays no heed. The plain Truth is that Israel will enhance its security and support by strengthening its moral case, and this means leading with its moral commitments.
Dr. Ruth Wisse, a towering figure and a great champion of Israel, has written an important book in which she sees the plain Truth very differently than I do.
I support an open debate in which American Jews will feel free to express critical views on the public policies and moral positions of Israel’s government. She insists that to do so is betrayal. I would be happy for other Jews to read her book and draw their own conclusions.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie